Nov 2, 2016

Otherland Speculative Fiction Book Club

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. 


by İnci German

Reading James Tiptree Jr. for the OSF book club was an ambitious plan. Not only because we didn’t know how our discussion would work out with a collection of short stories, but also because few of us guessed what a strikingly challenging, intense and powerful reading experience it would be.

Well, discussing short stories worked out surprisingly well.
As to Tiptree Jr.’s prose, it’s safe to say that few authors manage to master the art as she does. You should be warned though, it’s not easy reading and her stories often require re-reading in order to grasp the full scope of what she does.
She can invent perfectly developed worlds/characters/settings even in the shortest of her stories and has the talent to use and bend language as she wishes – and her use of it is powerful, powerful, powerful!

Concerning the scope of topics of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, it all boils down to a few recurring themes: The ever present gender/women’s issues; the nature and urges of beings and the impossibility of defeating them; the interaction between humans and aliens and finally sex, which is depicted very gloomily and in imminent relation with violence and death.

Being a woman sucks – now and in the future. This is the core element that creeps through all of Tiptree’s stories and makes the collection, as you go from story to story, pull you down and down and further down… Almost every way a woman is bound to suffer is presented in this collection: Hostility as in the “The Screwfly Solution”; being passed over and denied an identity, mainly because of appearance as in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, “The Women Men Don’t See” and “With Delicate Mad Hands”; sexual humiliation, degradation and being reduced to sex, again as in “With Delicate Mad Hands” and “The Women Men Don’t See”; being denied basic needs and rights as in “Your Faces, O My Sisters Your Faces Filled of Light”.

Talking about the persona James Tiptree Jr., it’s impossible to get around mentioning Alice Sheldon, the real author behind the name. Sheldon created an avatar through which she could finally attract the attention her writing deserved, a male author called James Tiptree Jr. and was quite devastated when her real identity was uncovered. This devastation is reflected in the death of P.Burke in “The Girl Who Was Plugged In”, a proto-cyberpunk story about a hideous girl who, in a world where advertising is forbidden, is hired by a corporation to control a blank, “deliciously beautiful” body that will use and help selling their products. In this body, for the first time in her life she is noticed, recognized and appreciated. When she is uncovered, she gets killed.

The urges in human nature beating the will are subject of “The Screwfly Solution”, of “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” to some degree and finally of  “Love is the Plan and the Plan is Death”. The latter, the story of an arachnoid alien being becoming conscious and trying to overcome its nature, is an impressive piece of writing especially due to its strangely compelling prose which ensures a very engaging read.

The portrayal of alien beings and their interaction with humans is in fact something Tiptree Jr. does particularly well. In “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” we witness humans trying to pick up aliens at a bar. And the diversity of possible alien beings is mind-boggling! In fact, “the fear of the unknown” is a thought ‘alien’ to Tiptree Jr. Extraterrestrials are not the creepy, stomach-churning, dubious beings we have come to read and see in fiction. They aren’t driven by some Darwinistic cause that will wipe us all out. As “The Women Men Don’t See” and “With Delicate Mad Hands” suggest, they're indeed a serious alternative to the reign of men on Earth.

Incidentally, she occasionally describes the use of technologies that are viewed as dated today, such as the coexistence of tapes and computers in “On the Last Afternoon” or in “Houston, Houston Do You Read?”. But for an author who has generally been active in the late 60’s and 70’s this kind of “flaw” seems inevitable.

As refreshing as some stories are (for instance “The Man Who Walked Home”, the story of an astronaut trapped in time, trying to go back home or “Slow Music” which is about the last woman and man on earth) the overall tone of this collection remains a bitter and grave one.

Yet in the face of so much narrative mastery and ingenuity we couldn’t deny this book our full recommendation. Thus Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr. joins the club of OSFBC-approved books!

P.S. Don't miss our next meeting on Friday, November 11th where we'll be discussing Neal Stephenson's Seveneves.

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